Emor: Immediate Needs

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

“None shall defile himself for any person among his people . . “ (Vayikra 21:1)


At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read a set of laws which keep the kohanim, or priests, in a state of ritual purity and away from the ritual impurity of death. Thus, the verse above teaches that a kohen will not touch a dead body, and the verses which follow offer some exceptions for immediate family members. Yet things are not so clear cut, and Rashi brings an close reading from an earlier text which illustrates an important ethical principle:

none shall defile himself for any person among his people. . .

[this means] while the dead one is among his people. It excludes one who has no one to bury him.

Let’s unpack what Rashi means: he’s reading the phrase “among his people” to mean that if there is a family member or somebody else (that is, there are people around)  to bury the body, then the priest should not come into contact with ritual impurity. Yet Rashi says the priest must bury the met mitzvah, literally the “corpse which is commanded,” that is, someone with no family or “people” to arrange the funeral. It’s a mitzvah, or commandment, to attend to such a person, even for the priest.

OK, so far we’ve learned that the priest has to step in if nobody else is around, but I don’t think this is just about burials- though it’s also certainly true that it is a profound act to honor the dead by attending funerals and making sure that even those without family have dignified interments. Having said that, let’s take a step back and look at the general idea: even one with strict rules and boundaries and responsibilities, such as the priests of ancient Israel, had to step out of their customary role to attend to the immediate need of someone who had no one else.

Seen this way, the text applies not just at the end of life but throughout our journeys. How often is there someone in emotional, financial, spiritual or practical need right in front of us? Yet it’s all too easy to “not defile ourselves” with people’s challenges  and problems, retreating into our roles and jobs and schedules and errands and emails and myriad distractions, instead of attending to others when the need is urgent. Even the priest had to attend to the dead if themitzvah was unavoidable; should the rest of us do less for the living?

Shabbat Shalom,



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